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For having drawn some of the most vile — and hilarious — comic strips ever published, Ivan Brunetti is actually a fairly soft-spoken guy. The writer and artist of Schizo (published by Fantagraphic Books) has raised a few eyebrows with his recent endeavors: curating art exhibits on comics and, most recently, editing Yale University Press's An Anthology of Graphic Fiction.
The Anthology, which is due in September, promises to be one of the most important books on the history of comics — certainly, at least, one of the best anthologies of the medium. The book will reprint the work of over eighty important cartoonists, broken up into sections so that (Brunetti hopes) the reader can get some impression of the development of the medium, as illustrated by examples of the medium itself.
In conjunction with the Anthology, Columbia College's A+D Gallery (619 S. Wabash, Chicago, IL) will be exhibiting The Cartoonist’s Eye from Thursday, September 8, through Saturday, October 22. The show's roster, many of whom will be included in the book as well, includes such 20th Century comics luminaries as Charles Schulz, Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Art Spiegelman, Peter Bagge, James Sturm, David Mazzucchelli, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Richard Sala, Jason Lutes, Phoebe Gloeckner, and many, many others. At the opening on Thursday, Clyde Fans creator Seth will also present a slideshow called "Brief Stories about Cartooning" on the lives of notable cartoonists, both living and dead.
Gordon McAlpin met with Brunetti to talk about this recent work, the education of comics, and just when exactly the long-delayed Schizo #4 is going to come out (December, apparently).
Are you a "disingenuous nihilistic/misanthropic elitist badass 'macho' curmudgeon" or a "sentimental idealistic weak little fool who couldn't hurt a fly"?
Did I use those words?
It's really odd, because that comic book [Schizo #1], I drew in 1993 and 1994. It's like listening to another person or something. I used to be a lot angrier, I think. But, generally, I don't walk around with spittle frothing out of my mouth and yelling at people…
Cutting their heads off and skull-fucking them?
No, those are just my thoughts. I mean, not that I think about that all day. Just every so often. I think I had a lot more pent up, repressed anger — especially when I was drawing those issues — than I do know.
In an interview with Gary Groth, you said you learned to read from comics — and you mentioned specifically that you read a lot of Disney comics when you were a kid. I was wondering what other titles [have] stuck with you since childhood.
In Europe, generally, that's what you read. Disney comics are very popular. There were some other comics around at that time. In that same interview I think I might have mentioned some Western comics. Those were popular. Even magazines with gag cartoons, or periodicals with cartoon sections. I remember picking up things like that. I was just always attracted to things that looked like cartoons, I guess.
Then later, after moving to the United States — I was eight years old when I moved here — I got kind of obsessed with Spider-Man and Peanuts. Probably Spider-Man before Peanuts and then I went back to Spider-Man later. And then it flip-flopped between those two.
I tended to kind of get obsessed with one thing and then try to find everything with that thing in it. So, getting obsessed with Spider-Man meant finding anything that had Spider-Man in it in some way. So I got stuck buying, like, Nova, because it was a cross-over issue. "Well, it has Spider-Man in it, so I gotta get it."
Sadly enough, I was that way about the Blue Beetle. Once he popped up in Justice League it was all over — I had to buy every title from then on. And now he's dead.
Well, at least you have closure.
Yeah, I never read Batman and Superman until later. There were the TV shows: the Batman TV show, the Superfriends cartoons… I knew who Batman and Superman were and all that, but when I was a kid, I just got obsessed with the Spider-Man comics and just kind of shut out everything else. I think at the time, during the '70s, DC comics looked more boring. And Marvel comics… seemed more exciting. And now, as an adult, [DC’s comics] seem more interesting because they're more boring… just not as flashy.
I taught that class, "Writing the Graphic Novel,” and this is still a problem: people trying to draw the Marvel way. Although they don't realize that, they've absorbed comics through Marvel comics and things that copied Marvel comics, and that kind of became the standard way of presenting comics. Just even the way a page is laid out.
There's that book, How to Draw [Comics] the Marvel Way. They have scenes, like, "Here's how the other guys do it," and it'll be kind of a boring comics scene. And "here's how the Marvel Way is," and it's overly exaggerated, crazy camera angles…
In a way, the boring one is more interesting. As I get older, I find that the more boring, more deadpan presentation (is) more fascinating than the more dynamic, every panel turned up to eleven kind of approach.
It's like every panel is a sledgehammer. When you're a kid, that has a really powerful, visceral impact, but as an adult, it's like death metal blasting in your ear every second. You just can't tolerate it. It's just too much. I kind of prefer something that's… not so blaring. I kind of prefer pulling back and letting the reader decide how they feel about something as opposed to the panel being overly dramatic or whatever every single time.
It's about storytelling, not —
— not like enhancing every single panel to this maximum impact. Sometimes the people just sit in the restaurant and have a conversation without the camera flipping around in every direction.
You've been a "visiting faculty or lecturer" at the University of Chicago… ?
I taught a class there, and I'm teaching it again next year. It's called "Writing the Graphic Novel." But it's basically cartooning, but, you know, you have to have the words "graphic novel" in the name of the course.
Right. I was wondering, because you haven't done a graphic novel.
That just means "comics" to people. It's so hard to explain "graphic novels"...
I think we're all stuck with the term now, because bookstores use it to shelve everything in that area. The book I'm putting together for Yale University Press, which the show is in conjunction with, they wanted to call it Anthology of Graphic Fiction. Of course, I'd just like to call it Anthology of Comics, but they have to have the word "graphic" in there. You know, "graphic novel," "graphic fiction"…
Some of the cartoonists freaked out about it. Like, "Well, I don't write fiction!" Like, you know, autobiography or journalism. And I'm like, well, that's just what we're stuck with. I think we all have to live with it. I mean, cartoonists among themselves rarely use the (term) "graphic novel." But, I think with the rest of the world, we have to use it, because that's what they're using.
It's just too much to fight it. It's just so much wasted effort. Just be thankful that anybody outside our little world is looking at this stuff.
You went to the University of Chicago, and you got a degree in English, and now you work as a web designer?
Yeah, that title's kind of a misnomer. I don't do a lot of designing. I just sort of maintain and coordinate the Columbia College website. That's how I pay the bills.
And then the teaching thing just sort of popped up out of nowhere. I never thought I'd be able to do it. But about three years ago or something, somebody found out that I drew comics. I think there was an exhibit at the College, of staff artwork or something. Somebody convinced me to teach at the Continuing Education department, and then they discontinued (the Continuing Education program) after I taught a couple classes.
I sort of took it way more seriously than someone else might have, for a Continuing Education course. I decided I'd take it really seriously so that I have a good syllabus, so if I do like it, I could maybe teach somewhere else, and I'd have a good framework. And also just because I cold feet about it. The way I usually do things is I get somewhat obsessive about it, so I had to make the greatest syllabus ever! I didn't have the confidence that I could teach that class, so I really had to build a good framework for it. And I'm glad that I spent all that extra time doing that.
I had no idea that I'd really enjoy it, was the other thing. I ended up really liking teaching, so in the long run, I was glad I'd spent the extra time to put something good together, because it's served me well over the years. Basically the class I'm teaching at University of Chicago is kind of the same class that originally was called "Cartooning," now it's "Writing the Graphic Novel," but it's expanded some. But the basic idea, the basic structure is the same. A lot of the exercises and lesson plans are the same. I have a little more time to work with — like two or three extra weeks — but it's basically that class I created a couple of years ago.
I've looked at the curricula of the handful of schools that offer (degrees in Sequential Art), and I've noticed that there's a real lack of reading in all of them. I thought that was really strange, because there's not a single Writing program in the country that wouldn't require at least five or six different literatures classes.
I imagine people teaching cartooning are using a lot of examples, it's not just an official class that's about reading and writing papers on these comics. But I think the only way to teach it is to show people examples. So I think they're reading comics, but it's kind of at the service of learning how to create them. Something dedicated to… "let's read these comics [just] to analyze them closely," you're right, that's still not really offered. But I think little by little that will be offered.
I'm actually going to teach a class where we read comics next year [for the University of Chicago]. I'm still negotiating that, but it looks like it will happen. The course (on how to write a comic) is an undergraduate course, but the other one is in the Continuing Education department, and they want to do a different type of class, and that would be reading the graphic novel. So maybe I'll call that one "Reading the Graphic Novel."
I would probably just pick three graphic novels: Maus, Jimmy Corrigan, and maybe Ice Haven by Dan Clowes. I think those would be good to compare. They're very different, you know, but you can compare the approaches taken, and it also would give you an excuse to read other things by those authors. So I thought it would kind of a mixture of reading the main graphic novel and then a few short pieces by each of those authors. That's something probably is not being done, just an intense focus on one.… Actually, you could teach a whole class on Jimmy Corrigan. You could certainly do it.
Because there's very few comics classes, they tend to be almost too democratic — like, every single comic. "We have to cover every single kind of comic in the whole history [of comics], because people don't know about comics." But I think more and more people do know about comics now. You could do something that just focuses on one text or two texts, or three.
You don't have to have every class be a survey course on the entirety of comics: You've got super-heroes, underground comics… now there's, of course, manga, which is another whole can of worms. So trying to cover the entirety of comics in ten weeks, it gets difficult to do it in depth; you can just give people the general idea. Probably most classes are like that, where you have to cover that broad spectrum.
You recently started curating exhibits —
— another thing where I have no idea what I'm doing. They just asked me to do it, and I said, "Okay." They said, "You can do whatever you want," and I said, "Okay." Same with that cartooning class, because I don't know what I'm doing, I always kind of look at things from the ground up, like I kind of go back to basics.
With the cartooning class, I just thought, "Well, how would I teach someone cartooning?" So I just kind of broke it down to the way how I learned how to do it and tried to make the class mirror the creative process itself, like going from simplicity to complexity. In my mind, with teaching a class, you're sort of tricking a student into doing good work.
You want to trick them in the sense that they need to let their guard down and relax and then slowly put more of themselves on paper. But I don't want them to worry about that right off the bat, so you just start off with more exercises and things that are just fun. And little by little, we start thinking about what we're putting on paper. But you have to ease into it. I think, because of my own struggles with cartooning, I was able to break it down into a process that made sense to me.
With curating a show, I have no idea what I'm doing. I just thought, well, what kind of show would I like to see? Most shows of this type, they're not put together by cartoonists. There have been a few good ones by people that know what they're doing. But a lot of times, it just seems like (a curator) got into comics, and made some phone calls or talked to some people… "What should I put in here?" And then you have a list of people, and then you have a show, if there are enough artists, but then the work doesn't connect. A lot of things connect, and then some things kind of don't, and there's no context for somebody that doesn't know about comics. They're just looking at this stuff and… I don't know what they get out of it, because it doesn't always seem like there's a clear aesthetic vision or goal behind it. There isn't a flow as you walk through the rooms. It's just… a bunch of comics. (laughs)
That's what I wanted to rectify. Like, okay, [the upcoming A+D Gallery show] is one person's vision. I know a lot about comics. I've read a lot of comics. I don't have to ask anybody "what should put in here?"
I'm putting together an anthology of comics, and I had to think about how they flow from page to page, what order you should see this work in. I just sort of extended that to the gallery show. I just thought it should sort of feel like the book.
I want the book to be really thick — I think I'm up to 85 cartoonists. I just want to give a sense of the immense variety of comics. I could easily add another 100 pages to this book and find twenty more artists that I'd like to put in there. I just want people to walk in and be overwhelmed a little bit. Like, "Wow! I had no idea that there's all this stuff being done!" Each piece is obviously one person's vision, but in my mind they kind of connect, or you could put them together in a way that they would make sense to people. Like just when you're flipping pages through a book, it should flow, where you don't see these breaks between things, just sort of a natural progression of what you're looking at. The same thing should happen when you're walking through a gallery space. I'm just trying to make those things connect or mirror each other.
When I was an undergrad, I took an Art History independent study, and I managed to convince my professor that I was going to do a history of comics in comics form — but not by drawing anything, just taking the work itself, [photocopying] it, dropping caption boxes over it, and [putting] it into a narrative sequence, mostly chronological. And what struck me after I had gotten several pages done was that you can see this development of the form. Even when you go back to stuff that really, technically, does predate anything that's really comics.
Like [if] you go back to the Bayeaux Tapestry, that's really pushing the definition a little too far, I think. But Rodolphe Töpffer, I think, was really the first [comics artist].
I would agree with you there. A lot of cartoonists that are seeing his work… there is something about it where this is what we know comics to be now. He seems to hit it on the head. I think the trick for him was that he drew a picture, and then started drawing sequences. They make sense because of that. It wasn't just some illustrations, or a series of pictures, it was a sequence. That was the defining point: to think in terms of a sequence, not just a series. But also the method he was using sort of forced him to improvise his story.
When you see his stuff, to me, it reads like a modern day comic. Before that, I don't think anyone was able to do that. You get close, but you always have to stretch that definition. My problem with doing that has always been that you can get to a point where everything's comics.
"Well, I look at a building, and on the windows, that's a comic, because there's panels." I mean, there are grids and systems and panels… series of pictures… narratives of some kind going everywhere.…
There is a piece called The Maestà [by Duccio di Buoninsegna, completed in 1311] that told the story of Jesus Christ’s life, so, since there was a chronological order in how you were supposed to read them and it was a story told strictly in pictures —
"— it’s a comic." But there’s something where it’s not comics.
It’s still a series of pictures illustrating something.…
An external text.
Yeah. There's something where, with Töpffer, it seems that there's a break there. He made the leap to a more modern way of looking at it, where (the pictures and the text were) more unified. You could look at the pictures and without even knowing the words, you can see that it's a comic.
A lot of these other things, you see a series of pictures, but they don't flow. Unless you already know the story of Christ's life, and… apply that and [realize], "Oh, this is actually a narrative story." [But] you need to know that first. If you just see those pictures, it would be much more difficult to figure out what the story is. So it's a little bit different, I think.
You've got 85 artists… in the book?
Yeah. A lot of them only have one page. I'd say there's about twelve to fourteen Sunday comics. There's a section of about twelve gag cartoonists. Then there's just odds and ends from all over…
It seems like the average is between four and eight pages [per cartoonist]. A few people have between ten and twenty, and a few people have one.
You described it somewhere as being kind of a Norton’s Anthology of Comics.
Yeah, that's the way I started to think about it. When Yale approached me to do this, they actually originally approached Chris Ware, who had just finished McSweeney’s #13 — so he had just done this same project, putting an anthology of comics, and he just didn't want to do it all over again. The thing that was kind of different about the Yale book was that it was going to be all reprints. Whereas with McSweeney’s, Chris chose what cartoonists he wanted to put in and let them choose their own work.
In my case, there was nothing being commissioned, so I had to pick and choose what I wanted from each person. So in my mind, it's a different project, in a way. You have to organize it a little differently. You kind of want to put things into some sort of context for people. Usually in those books, it's chronological, mostly, but you'll have genres, too.
In my case, the whole book's kind of structured like my class, where we start with doodle drawing or sketch drawing — what, to me, is like the root of a certain kind of drawing that defines cartooning. Then we move into looking at composing a one-panel cartoon and different ways of looking at that. Then it moves into the four-panel strip, and there's a whole section on that. Then into the full page, where you're thinking about the page as a unit, then it moves into short stories and then longer stories. Within that, there's also distinct genres. It's kind of easy: one panel cartoons are sort of a genre, four-panel cartoons are sort of a genre, too; and Sunday comics. Autobiography's kind of clustered, and then the fiction's kind of clustered. But then toward the very end, the last few cartoons sort of combine all those approaches, I think. I my mind, it makes sense, sort of as a progression, but maybe I'm totally wrong.
Well, I'd have to see it.
I'm still putting it together. I'm hoping to finish by mid-October. I have to gather all the artwork, make sure all the permissions are in order; I haven't finished that. And then designing the cover, which… we're going to use some of Seth's drawing . He's going to have to redraw part of it, so that's one new thing. And I'm writing an introductory essay. There'll be a few things that people haven't seen and a lot of things that are pretty rare. The bulk of it is kind of what I think are important pieces by each person, or something that kind of encapsulates what they do or what their contribution was.
I kind of hate to ask this question, but I noticed that on the list of people involved, there's a lack of people who've worked on super-hero books. Obviously, Dave Mazzucchelli and Tony Millionaire have done Batman stories, but —
— I wrote a Batman story. I mean, it was a joke. It doesn't really count as a true Batman story.
Yeah, I'm going to be asked a lot about this. There's some stuff that I like in those areas, but I feel that it's been reprinted a lot. The stuff that would be most interesting to me would be to show the first Superman story, the first Batman story…
The Smithsonian Book [of] Comic-Book Comics — kind of has all that stuff in it. So I don't want to repeat what's in the Smithsonian books. I think they covered what I would feel is the interesting super-hero stuff. The really early, primitive stuff, to me, captures what was great about those comics more than anything.
You could see that they were creating this language they're writing in. They didn't really know what they were doing, so it's kind of fascinating. It's kind of clunky, but I think it's kind of more interesting because you can see how it all started.
But I feel like they really covered that in the Smithsonian book, and I don't know what I could really add to that. I was thinking about running something by this guy Fletcher Hinks, who's kind of like an outsider superhero cartoonist, but somebody's putting together a book on him, too.
It's also hard to get the rights to that stuff, too. There's a budget for how much we can pay to reprint some of these things, and when you get into the Marvel and DC world, they're very stingy about all that stuff. They don't like somebody other than themselves reprinting it.
They let the Smithsonian book that came out last year [The New Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Stories] use some of that stuff, but, again, that kind of covered it. I feel like mine should just be a separate book. It's a different kind of storytelling to me. I could see putting a weird sort of Ditko story, (if I were going to make exceptions to that). There might even be time to rethink some of that. I'm still kind of changing stuff every day with this book.
You know, one thing you haven't asked me is "How does someone who draws the filthiest, most obscene pornography get these respectable gigs?" Yale University Press, University of Chicago, curating a show…
And I don't know what the answer to that is, but I guess there's two sides to my personality, like Good Cop/Bad Cop. Good Ivan/Bad Ivan.
See, you know, I was not that surprised by it. Even when you've got characters… uh… (laughs)
… doing horrible things.
… doing horrible, horrible things.
I have a Victorian morality, is the thing people don't understand. I'm horrified by what I draw.
I'm one of the most squeamish people on Earth. Sometimes I'll draw things to see if I can do it… I don't understand why certain things make me squeamish. A lot of things I just can't bring myself to draw. I'll try to surprise myself.
What doesn't get past your censor filter?
Well, the strange thing is I tend to tone things down when I draw it. I tend to leave it more to the imagination of the reader than people realize.
So, your imagination is like Mike Diana.
That stuff to me, like, it doesn't… not to dis poor Mike Diana for all his troubles, but… that's a different approach to me, where he's kind of reveling in drawing the most disgusting things, and I tend to not want to actually draw it. In my mind, I'm actually suggesting it. Not all the time. Sometimes you actually have to draw something that's kind of graphic. [But] I actually like avoiding making it graphic. I try to kind of simplify it and abstract it, so I'm not drawing the thing. But the way people remember it is more graphic than it actually was.
There was this book somebody did… There was a sketchbook going around at SPX a few years ago, where somebody asked cartoonists to redraw a gag from my book Haw! in the sketchbook. Just redraw it. He actually printed up a mini-comic version of the sketchbook and sent it to me. What was fascinating to me was that the cartoons people draw were much more graphic than what I actually drew. Like, in their mind, I think they remembered them being more pornographic. When I drew them, I tried to avoid showing certain things, but in your mind, they kind of get burned as being more horrible than they are.
The other thing, with [Haw!], was that I was trying to do something that would funnier after you read it. They're not funny when you first see them, but then you'll remember them later and make you laugh. That's sort of what was happening with me: I'd draw something that wasn't funny, but it would pop back into my mind sometimes and make me chuckle. So that was always my test: Does it make me laugh?
I was trying to get the same thing happening to the people reading it, where the jokes would seem funnier later, when you weren't looking at it. They would burn something into your brain, and your own twisted mind would make them something else out of them.
I tend to hold back a lot, in my mind. I try to not to show things. I find when you don't do that it's too vulgar. A lot of things strike me as being too vulgar. I'm sure people would be really surprised at how squeamish and… I don't know what the word is. I'm just kind of offended by vulgarity, but then I've drawn some of the filthiest, most horrible things anyone's ever drawn, probably.
What I was saying was that I wasn't really that surprised that you had this academic side to you, because even when you are drawing these really horrible, horrible things, there's a love a comics that just comes through it. Of course, It's a little more obvious with things like "Whither Shermy?" where you're kind of riffing on classic comics…
Those are less horrifying. That's Sensitive, Good Ivan. The gag stuff tends to bring out Bad Ivan.
And 90% of Schizo is Bad Ivan?
Yeah, the first three issues are Bad Ivan. This one I'm doing now is less bad.
Less Bad Ivan?
Much less bad. "Good" might be an overstatement.
Are you continuing "Self-Caricature" in [Schizo #4]?
You know, the weird thing is, I was drawing that story, and then I just couldn't draw it anymore. I had mapped out this comic that I just didn't want to do anymore. I realized that I did what I wanted to do with the first three issues, and then all the other ideas that I had were sort of half-formed. I just had such a struggle working on it… I think what it was was that I just didn't want to work on it.
In my mind, I was writing about my marriage with that story. And then my marriage ended. And… doing the remaining 300 pages just wasn't as compelling to me.
About two years ago, I drew a strip about my marriage, and realized that was all I wanted to say about it. I did this page and that was it.
Chapters 5 through 18 are one page.
Yeah, I should just say, "And then it ends."
When I look at those, it's not even a story, those four chapters. They're not really a narrative, per se.
Well, the fourth one ["Work Equals Degradation" in Schizo #3] is.
The fourth one is a story.
Some of the ideas I had [for "Self-Caricature"] popped up in other strips that I did. Even just the format of doing those black and white pages at that size, I just don't even want to work like that anymore.
Now that there's enough distance with those issues, I kind of see them as being of a piece. Those issues are a part of my life, and those issues reflect that section of my life, and I think they're kind of done. I think there really wasn't a story there. It was all kind of in my head — I'd planned it out, but it was too vague. It just wasn't compelling anymore.
What I'll probably do is, little bits and pieces of it will pop up here and there. I mentioned the one strip I did two years ago. And I'm going to be packaging those first three issues into a collection that will probably come out at the end of next year.
And you're going to call it Bad Ivan?
Bad Ivan. I should.
Now when I look at that stuff, I realize the issues kind of were cohesive things on their own. I kind of want to just print the issues like they were printed. Here's the entirety of issue one, issue two, issue three… maybe some stuff in-between that was all the odds and ends I did for other publications, and I might add an introduction, and that might be the only thing I want to do to revisit that time period.
I don't want to be stuck on some idea just because I said, "I'm gonna do this!" I realized that it just isn't such a great idea.
So that was why Schizo #4 has taken so long…
Yeah, it was having a job. I drew other things for a lot of different publications. I did a lot of illustration work. You know, working forty hours a week on a job, that takes up most of my time. And I was depressed for a really long time — you know, like, not a productive as I could have been.
But the last couple of years, I've had a lot of work to do. Especially the last year. And I've actually gotten more drawing done, in a way. It's really strange, like the more I have to do, it's actually better to just be too busy. Not enough time to get depressed. I was kind of spending a lot of time just worrying and not drawing stuff. Now, I have no time to worry, I just have to do it and live with it. I'm a very indecisive person, and I go back and forth on everything.
That was the other thing, too: those long narratives I thought about doing twelve years ago, the way I'm working now, I'm trying to just acknowledge my own temperament. I don't work that way! I can't even plan out a day ahead. How can I plan the next five years? I can't do it. I just try to acknowledge that — just make my work be whatever it's going to be. Whatever I'm doing, that's what it is. That's what I'm going to print.
When I first started thinking about [Schizo #4], it was going to be a whole different book. And then it got to this point where it turned into one-page stories, because that's what I'd been doing. Not because that was supposed to be my next issue, but because I got some offers to do one-page color strips, so I started doing them. And then I realized, I did enough of these, so these should be in my next issue. And then it turned into, these stories should be my entire issue. There's nothing else; they're not the back-up stories, they are the issue.
Then I started think, well, maybe I should organize them in a certain way — try to have a certain rhythm to it. And then I realized, trying to do that, I was just micromanaging. It was much more interesting to just print them in order.
In the end, it's going to be a little over five years' worth of these strips…
How many pages is it going to be?
It's 31 pages of comics. So, you know, that's like six strips a year. But it tells the story of those five years, kind of. They're some reason why I drew them in this specific order. This is what I drew at that time. I don't want to go back and try to "perfect" it. And I realized that's probably going to be a good way to work for a while, because whenever I try to plan things out, I overdo it, but then I end up scrapping everything anyway. It's almost better to accept what comes out of you instead of trying to force it to be something it's not.
If you think you screwed something up, just do it right the next time?
Well, I don't want to tell myself I'm going to do a 300 page story. I can't focus! It's bad enough to do just one page. I just tell myself, okay, I'll just do a one page story. I mean, the worst thing you can do is start thinking that the next thing you do has got to be the greatest thing you've ever done! That's just a great way to set yourself up for disappointment and failure.
So now I just tell myself, if I can get the next page done, great! You know, if I can just draw whatever I'm drawing, I just try to accept that has its own integrity. And especially acknowledging that my life is structured by a full-time day job. That's my life: I can't get around that. I'm not going to be drawing so many pages per week. That's just not possible.
I just kind of embraced it and said, you know, if I don't have all this time to think about this strip and I don't have enough time to draw, I just want to make each page really good. I just spend more time per page. I have to acknowledge that's the way my life has been, and that's the way it might be for a while. And if that ever changes, then my way of working will change. If I get to a point where I know I can draw every day, eight hours a day… I'll probably start thinking in terms of a longer story, because I can do it then. It's more realistic. It won't take me twenty years to draw a chapter.
That's all you can really do. You don't want to get stuck with some idea you told yourself and just be stubborn about it. "I'm going to draw a 500-page story about a blind turtle! I'm gonna do it!" And then if you get to page 8 and you don't want to do it anymore, you just have to give up.
Sometimes you'll draw a page, and you don't even realize that you've tapped into something that you thought was going to be a one page story and then it turned out to be a big thing.
Like the very first strip in Schizo #4, it was just supposed to be a one-off strip — the Shermy one. At the time I thought it was just going to be the one page. I was drawing it for some newspaper [Newcity Chicago]. I thought that'll be it, you know. But then… the way I did that strip, the theme of that strip, the size of it, the way I colored it — I mean, everything — that became the template for everything that I did for the next five years.
I think you have to let your work have its own autonomy, sort of. There's a part of your brain that knows all this stuff that your conscious mind won't acknowledge. I always feel that way. There's some part in the back of my head that's kind of guiding things. Some kind of secret part of my brain that knows what's going on more than my conscious mind does.
So you've got Schizo #4 coming out in…
It'll come out in December. I just finished drawing it about a month ago, and I'm coloring the last two pages this week, in-between working on the show, and my job, and the Yale book. And I'm getting married, too.
My life's just completely changed. I've got so much going on now. Years ago, I was just staring at the ceiling every day, lying on the floor, weeping. Now I feel like I have all this stuff going on. It's kind of weird. But it's good, because I'd rather have too much going on than have time to think about everything and be depressed about it.
I'm going to do a story about my childhood. That's going to be probably a longer piece. I'm planning out the fifth issue of Schizo right now and the sixth one. And in my mind, those are like another trilogy. It looks like this one and the next two will be thematically related. Someday I'll collect those as one unit.
Sooner than seven years from now?
That's probably a lot of wasted time. It sounds horrible to say that. Seven years. What did I do in seven years?
I haven't done very much. I've kind of squandered my life on earth, but I have this renewed energy as I get closer to forty. You know, okay, enough dilly-dallying, let's just do it. I'm not going to be here forever. Just go down the list of what I want to do, so I'm starting to do it to the best of my ability.
Somewhere between Schizo #1 and #2, you tried unsuccessfully to get the job of drawing Nancy?
It was actually just before #1 came out. The rejection letter's in issue two, because I got rejected between #1 and #2.
Actually, I finished drawing Schizo #1, and I'd drawn about four full weeks of Nancy at that point, and then right after I finished Schizo #1, I had to draw another four weeks' worth of it. I think. Maybe I'm wrong. That's probably not accurate. But I had a couple more weeks of working on Nancy right after Schizo. So while it was being printed, I was still drawing Nancy.
And then I got the rejection letter a couple months after that, but my first issue had come out by that time, and I knew I wouldn't have wanted that job.
I think those strips are hilarious, the ones that I've seen. One that really cracks me up is where Sluggo takes a picture of Nancy's head because he wants to see what he'd look like with a beard. (laughs) Just a purely visual gag, and it couldn't have worked as well with any two other characters.
I was just trying to think, "What would Ernie Bushmiller do?" That's like a variation of an actual Nancy, probably. I looked at so much Nancy at some point. And the syndicate would tell me "Nancy wouldn't do this" and "she wouldn't do that." So just to spite them, I would take an actual strip and just change it slightly, because I was waiting for them to tell me, "Well, Nancy wouldn't do this."
That was a nightmare, but I learned a lot about cartooning doing it, so I'm kind of glad I did it now. It was like art school. It taught me a lot about drawing… stuff I'd never thought about before.
That's the way art should be taught, maybe. Master and apprentice. "Copy the master." When I think about it, it would be a perfect ten or twelve week course, to just pick one cartoonist and actually draw strips in that vein. Try to make it exactly like that person, whoever it is you're aspiring to. You learn a lot about their craft. Not Dilbert, you know, but whatever.
I always tell people, don't worry about having a style. Everybody has a style, you just don't know it. But when you copy a lot of stuff, all the things that are wrong each time, that's what makes it your style, because you do things a certain way. So you should kind of embrace that.
One of the exercises that I do is just draw a cartoon character from memory — just doodle them really fast. When you do enough of those, you start to notice things about the way you draw that are kind of like a clue about what you should maybe embrace about your own drawing.
In "If I Were the Dictator of the World," from Schizo #3, you said, "90% of people are assholes, 9.9% are okay at best, and the remainder are exemplary human beings." Who have you known whom you would describe as "exemplary"?
I'd say Chris [Ware] is definitely one of those one in a billion people.
One thing I never mention enough is, a lot of the stuff that's been happening, I really have Chris Ware to thank for a lot of it. Not only has he kept me sane over the last few years, and just talking about comics with somebody else — and he's obviously very intelligent about comics, and studying his work is like a comics education, because there's so much going on in there. It just made me think about it a lot more. Every time we got together over dinner to talk about comics, that's what helps me teach my class. In a way, it's indirectly teaching them.
And then the Yale book, he recommended me for that. Through a stroke of luck, the Chicago Sun-Times had done an article about me that same day that Yale called me so it looked like, "Oh, you must be a famous cartoonist!" I mean, ultimately it was the strength of my proposal, and he wouldn't have recommended me if he didn't think I could do it, but I never thank him enough for all the stuff he's done for me.
Even just the direction my work has taken, I think that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't started talking to Chris more. I probably would have just given up drawing comics. I came close many, many times, just not doing it ever again. He just convinced me that whatever I was doing had some merit, some value. When I think back on it, I think if we hadn't become friends, I'd probably have just given up.
I felt like I was just flailing, especially after my third issue, for about a year or so. I just didn't know what I wanted to do with comics (anymore), and (Ware) helped me kind of refocus — not only as a friend, but as a mentor, too. To have somebody who is obviously just a master at cartooning… to be able to talk to somebody who is so good at it, that's better than going to school, probably, just to have one conversation with him. It just kind of reminds me that it's a struggle to make art.
And I don't feel crazy anymore that it's a struggle. I don't feel that's a bad thing, because it should be a struggle. To make something good is a struggle: you're going to have doubts and you're going to make missteps. That's just part of the process. I used to beat myself up so much about that. Now I'm just realizing that's just the way it goes.
The struggle is to just keep going and to not suck. There's no mystery to that, it's just constant hard work.Visit Ivan Brunetti's Website